by Brenda Clough

This is part 3 of Brenda’s 4-part summer series on SciFi & Fantasy worldbuilding.

Science fiction and fantasy is all about walking a thin line between the alien and the relatable. On the one hand, you have all the charms of the “alien.” Strange new planets under a distant sun, elves and dwarves and trolls, cultures and languages and histories that shall be forever unknown, unless you make them known.

But on the other hand you have your reader, who wants to relate to your characters.

The characters can look like lions or hobbits or large animated trees, but they have to speak to the heart of the modern reader.

Their goals and motives must be at least somewhat understandable.

Bring their motivations down to Earth

You might be able to imagine an alien life form that lies on the bottom of the frozen sea at the southern pole of Mars. But to appeal to readers, those beings need motivations and goals that we here on Earth can understand and become involved in.

Some very fine works have managed this balance magnificently. C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur novels are about a felinoid spacefaring race. Their motives and drives are distinctly catlike, but the reader is fully in sympathy with them.

The master, of course, was J.R.R. Tolkien. When you read The Lord of the Rings, you never quite understand the motives of the Elves. Their ways are not our ways, and the destiny of Elves is not parallel to the fate of Men. But they’re so alluring, it’s painless to be swept away into their concerns.

1. Bridge the gap

How did Tolkien do that? He used a “bridge,” a set of characters the readers instantly knew and loved: hobbits. And the hobbits, especially Bilbo and Frodo, are big Elven fans. They guide readers into their own enthusiasm, and what could have been vaguely repellent becomes attractive.

Compare Tolkien’s Arwen and Legolas to another set of Elves, the various elves in Alan Garner’s children’s classic The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Garner deliberately left out any affectionate connecting mediator. And his Elves are trouble. You do not want to get involved with them.

So, besides using a character bridge, what are other tried and true ways to create SFF creatures/beings/aliens that the reader can relate to?

2. Distort people

Make them very tall and they’re giants; short people can be dwarves or hobbits. This dates back to classical times—Homer’s Cyclops are one-eyed. But it’s also wildly popular in modern works—the Borrowers are just very tiny people.

3. Boost the beasts

Give animals human-like intelligence and communication skills, but keep their animal quality.

Cats, dragons, even rabbits (in Watership Down) have been successfully used this way.

4. Fascinate

Endow your beings with an attractive or fascinating quality or ability.

The aliens in the movie Arrival have a different perception of time. The merman in The Shape of Water is amphibious.

5. Borrow shamelessly

Steal them from myth or legend.

This is how Tolkien did it, by borrowing heavily from Norse mythology. Elves and dwarves are almost standard in fantasy fiction these days, but there are lots of folklores that haven’t been nearly explored enough—the myths of Asia and Africa, for instance.

6. Extend the known

Pick a scientific fact and run with it.

(This is my fave.) All life on Earth, for instance, is carbon-based. But silicon is nearly as chemically reactive as carbon. There could be a silica-based alien life form, right? I have done this myself, when I learned that slime molds can do all sorts of things. Call them biofilms, endow them with sentience, and away you go.

7. Adapt to challenges

Start with a challenging environment, as a good writer friend suggested.

A being living inside a volcano would basically be made of rock or metal that could deflect the heat and fire. A water-world alien might have fins and gills. What physical and mental capacities does your environment drive? (As an aside, let me point out that a real little mermaid will not look like Disney’s Ariel. She will look like a walrus, because underwater life calls for heavy insulation.)

The most important thing to do in SF and fantasy is to bake the alien-ness of your beings right into the plot and character.

Stories involving “aliens” who are actually ordinary humans in a thin disguise is not where it’s at. Superman and Aquaman are just costumed people, and Stuart Little is a boy who happens to have a mouse head. You have to go deeper than that, if you want it to be science fiction.


Brenda W. Clough has been writing science fiction and fantasy for years, including Doors of Death and Life (Tor), and has been a finalist for both Hugo and Nebula awards. She blogs at Book View Cafe. Her latest venture is a Victorian thriller, a sequel to the Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White. It is available, in serial form naturally, at A Most Dangerous Woman.